Wearing a hijab is your human right

Thousands of Muslim women protested in the streets of Brussels in recent days against a court ruling to permit banning of headscarves in Belgian universities.

Dress codes that prohibit clothing that depict religious views in public fuel a spectrum of systemic issues, such as racism, discrimination and unequal treatment. We cannot achieve the UN’s Global Goals for a better more sustainable world that will guarantee equal rights and opportunities for everyone, regardless of their nationality, race, religion, or any other status when such oppressing practices are encouraged on a state level.

Wearing a hijab is your human right! 

In this case, it is important to refer to the International law that must be used as a tool against discrimination and inequality on national level.

Many States characterize themselves as secular and claim to remain neutral with respect to citizens’ moral and religious convictions. Ironically, it often does not apply to the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf. Governments of many European countries seem to be fixated on what we as Muslims can or cannot wear. Recent Burkini and Burqa bans  have fueled an existing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric that has spread across Europe.

The right of Muslim women to wear the hijab is typically viewed within the context of freedom of religion or belief, which is a human right protected under different international treaties. This article examines some legal instruments that can help Muslim women know their rights and protect their religious freedom. 

Non-discrimination and equality are essential principles of human rights law. Any prejudice on grounds of inter alia, race, ethnicity, sex and religion is adverse to international human rights law. 

The founding Charter of the United Nations (UN) incorporated freedom of religion or belief and the importance of promoting human rights without discrimination against religion.[1] Freedom of religion or belief established its more specific virtue in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2] Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) expanded on this[3]:

  • Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  • No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  • Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  • The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

 A Muslim woman’s right to wear the hijab is represented in the ‘freedom to manifest’ category of freedom of religion or belief. It covers the external manifestation of religion as opposed to an individual’s thoughts and beliefs. This, it is guaranteed by Article 18(3) ICCPR[4].

Under international law, states can only restrict the manifestation of religious beliefs only when there is a compelling public safety reason[5]. Hijabs—which are among the noticeable religious symbols that were prohibited in many schools, universities and workplaces around the world —do not pose a threat to public health, order or morals.

While bans on hijabs are typically perceived as a violation of religious freedom, they also incriminate international women’s rights.

 

In 2004, France was the first state to ban headscarves in public schools. The advocates for the restriction claimed that it was necessary to protect the separation of church and state in public education. Unsurprisingly, this law disproportionately affects female Muslim students who wear hijab. 

Interestingly, such restrictive policies are not only a violation of religious freedom. It essentially undermines right to an education that is supposed to be guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[6] 

What is more, it is the ultimate obligation of States, expressed in Article 5 (a) of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women, to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, to achieve the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or stereotyped roles for men and women”. This factor is crucial when it comes to arguments concerning the symbolic value of the hijab. Cultural prejudice in determining what perpetuates gender-stereotypes must also be taken into account. The “Faith for Rights” framework advocates ensuring non-discrimination and gender equality.[7] 

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, claims that bans on hijab would be a violation of women’s rights and encourages states to “facilitate interfaith communication and to invest in both religious literacy and religious freedom literacy” in order to facilitate respect for freedom of religion.[8]

Cases that showcase that international law protects your right to wear a hijab:

Education 

In 2004 a student was expelled from university for wearing a hijab in Uzbekistan, the Human Rights Committee defined that restrictions imposed by States are only allowed when based on the grounds specified in Article 18 (3) of the ICCPR. 

The Committee found a violation as the State had failed to invoke any specific ground for which the restriction imposed on the author would in its view be necessary for the meaning of article 18, paragraph 3.[9] Moreover, those limitations “may be applied only for those purposes for which they were prescribed and must be directly related and proportionate to the specific need on which they are predicated. Restrictions may not be imposed for discriminatory purposes or applied in a discriminatory manner.”[10]

Employment 

In a 2018 case against France, the Human Rights Committee found violations of Articles 18 and 26 where a crèche employee had been fired for wearing the headscarf. She had already been wearing the headscarf for multiple years when she was informed that she would not be allowed back to work wearing the headscarf when coming back from her parental leave. Subsequently, upon her return, while wearing the headscarf, she was dismissed for serious misconduct for insubordination. The Committee underlined that the State party did not explain how the wearing of the headscarf ran counter the objectives of the crèche or how it interfered with the rights and freedoms of others. The Committee also found a violation of Article 26 of the Covenant because of the disproportionate impact of the restriction on the author as a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the headscarf.

When you face degrading practices of discrimination based on the clothing you can or cannot wear, do not hesitate to refer to international law and fight for your basic human rights.

Learning your rights is essential for every Muslim woman across the globe as it gives you a powerful tool to tackle injustice and prejudice.

 

Sources:

[1] Charter of the United Nations (signed 26 June 1945, entered into force 24 October 1945) 1 UNTS XVI, arts 1(3), 55(c)

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948) UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR)

[3] (https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-4&chapter=4&clang=_en)

[4] 51 ICCPR (n 47) Article 18(3).

[5] 51 ICCPR (n 47) Article 18(3).

[6] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948) (UDHR)

[7] 3 Beirut Declaration and its 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights”, A/HRC/40/58, annex II, commitment IV.

[8] 0 Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief (2018) UN Doc A/HRC/37/49, para. 88

[9] Raihon Hudoyberganova v. Uzbekistan, Communication No. 931/2000, (2004) UN Doc CCPR/C/82/D/931/2000, para. 6.2.

[10] CPR/C/82/D/931/2000, para. 6.2. 27 Human Rights Committee, General Comment no. 22 on Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion), CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, para 9.

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